The magic roundabout. One roundabout consisting of five roundabouts. That was what swayed me to prefer the longer trip to Swindon rather than the shorter one to Reading on a dark November evening.
And to get the roundabout out of the way. It really was amazing. How on earth there were no crashes while I was watching is beyond me. Cars were stopping and starting all around me with no apparent pattern – such a stressfull sight that the memory card in my camera broke down as I tried to capture it. So alas, no photos from the County Ground. Which is a pity. Because it is – the roundabout apart – quite beautifully located. There is a cricket and athletics ground next to the football ground, and open green spaces with football pitches, where the local kids presumably play in the summer.
Walking from the station, you first pass nice mixture of residential houses, restaurants, launderettes, betting shops, grocerys in Manchester Road, and then terraced houses in County Road, before you get to the County Ground Hotel. Swindon flags outside the hotel, show that is a home supporters’ pub. Several boards tell you of the connection to the Arkell Brewery, which helped finance the first stand in the ground in 1932, and the main stand of the stadium is still called the Arkell Stand, even though the current stand is from 1971.
It is 4 in the afternoon, and I take a walk around the ground to have a good look before it gets dark.
It is what you can call a generic ground. Stands have been built when need and finance have been able to find some common ground.
Behind the hotel/pub there is car park, almost completely empty 3½ hours before kick-off. There are a couple of barracks to the left of the car park, proclaiming that they are the “Swindon Town Football in the Community Trust”, also looking empty.
The Town End stand facing the car park is very small, in fact, if the players shoot over the top of the goal, the ball is likely to end up in the car park. They must have a few ball boys out here during the match. Tickets are sold from this stand, but the sale has not even started yet.
Adding to the generic look of the ground, one of the floodlight pylons come up through the roof of the Town End Stand, whereas the pylon at the other end is placed next to the stand. It looks quite peculiar.
Whereas the stand is painted a bright white, the souvenir shop in the corner of the stand is a relatively new red brick building. It makes the adjourning Irwell Stand in grey concrete from the 90’s look really old (and ugly, but then again, it is ugly, but fortunately it is partly covered by trees in front of it).
The other end of the ground, the Stratton End, also has a generic look. The houses of Shrivenham Road borders right up to it. Apparently, the club had planned to build a new stand in 1994, but the project was delayed by protests from the residents in the houses. And when the club finally got the permission to build, the club had been relegated and neither had the need nor the money for a new stand.
Fences and barbed wire on top of the wall (with a Swindon Town FC mural) makes the ground look like a prison camp from here – and, in fact, the ground was used for prisoners of war during the second World War.
It has grown dark, when I walk along the Arkell stand, where officials start to arrive and enter.
I decide it is time for my pre-match meal and enter the County Ground Hotel – but they do not serve food on a match day. I had noticed a fish ‘n chips shop by the magic roundabout and head for that. There are quite a few residents buying take-away meals for the entire family, it seems. I get my fish ‘n chips – and have never had such a big bag of chips with it. I can only get half through it – and really feel the need for beer.
So I head back to the pub. On the way, I see the ticket office has opened. I tell that I am doing groundhopping and the guy in the office, which stand he would recommend. For a good view, the Arkell and Irwell stands are equally good. For atmosphere, the Town End is best. So I go for a ticket in the Town End.
Inside the pub, there is a quiz show on television. There are only about 10 people inside, and all of them follow the show with great interest. I have a pint and a look around. There are a few framed players shirts. And a few photos of teams and individual players. One of them is from 1904 and features Bob Menham. A great photo. During a commercial break in the quiz show, I ask the bartender if he minds that I take a photo of it (the roundabout had not worked its magic on my memory card yet).
He calls for the manager, and I explain that I am from Denmark and doing groundhopping. The manager is nice. He not only gives me permission to take photos, he tells me about his purchases for the pub. His best coup was a Swindon shirt signed by the League Cup Final hero in 1969, Don Rogers, who scored the winner against Arsenal. He bought it framed and all for £40. It is not Rogers’ shirt – it is just an ordinary replica shirt, but, as the manager tells me, those shirts cost at least £45.
A guy at the bar desk has followed my conversation with the manager and offer me a drink. I don’t catch his name, but we are soon engaged in conversation.
He points to the photo from 1904 of Bob Menham and tells me that Bob’s great grandson, John, will be here soon. Although he is in a bad condition in a wheel chair, and although he drinks heavily, he goes to all the matches. In fact, he tells, former Manchester United player and Swindon manager, Lou Macari, has devoted a couple of pages to John in his autobiography. Lou Macari was a renowned tea-totaller, but John Menham was as the only person allowed to have drinks in his office.
In fact, when I check the biography, Macari writes: “After home games they would wheel him into my office. I would go doen to the boardroom and stock up with beers just for him. At six o’clock his parents would collect him and wheel him down to the local at the end of the road – where he went most nights, incidentally – and leve him there until closing time. He could shift eight or nine pints no trouble … Wonderful lad. Swindon without John Menham would not be the same. John and people like that are a club’s lifeblood. He is still there now, as far as I know, and still going strong.”
My friend adds that Lou Macari later invited John to sit in the dugout at Wembley for a match with one of his later clubs.
As we await the arrival of John, we share views on grounds we have visited. His favourite ground is Ewood Park, Blackburn – and ask me: “How many Shearers have played for Blackburn?” I sense it is a trick question – I can only think of Alan Shearer. Triumphantly he says: “Two. Duncan Shearer was a prolific goal scorer for Swindon, and Kenny Dalglish signed him up just before Blackburn were due to play Swindon.” My friend had gone to a home supporters club in Blackburn, and he had won drinks from all the Blackburn supporters on that one. So when he moved to Blackburn a couple of years later, he was recognized in the pub.
I offer my new friend a drink, but he insists that he buys the next round as well, since I have travelled from Denmark to see his team. He is not going to the match himself – too expensive – but ask me, which stand I will be in. When I tell him, that I am in the Town End, he calls Andy over. Andy is one of the leaders in that part of the ground. He is about my age, skinhead. He asks me if I am the Norwegian Swindon supporter that had been featured in a local paper (claiming to be the only Swindon Town supporter in Norway), but when he hears that I am a groundhopper and not a fan, he somehow cools a little bit. He goes to the jukebox and says “let’s play some music for out Scandinavian visitor”. It’s Sex Pistols beaming out.
The pub is getting quite full now. A car pulls up in front of the pub. “It’s John”. My friend go outside to help him out of the car. I take the chance to chat to a guy who has been standing listening to our conversation all night. I ask him if he is going to the match. “No”. He hasn’t gone since 1969. In that year, he had joined the army and travelled the world for the next 25 years. “And then you can’t start again”, he explains. So he only attends the pub on match days.
John is wheeled into the pub and greeted by bartenders and fans alike. He has cerebral palsy and is reliant on assistance. My friend takes off one of John’s shoes and pull out a £20 note. “His carers are not supposed to know how much he is drinking. He always has 4 double brandys before a match”.
My friend tells John that I am doing groundhopping – and ask him, how many grounds he has visited. I can’t hear John’s answer, but my friend interprets it as “80”. “I bet the best one was the Wembley dugout with Lou Macari” I say, and John gives me big grin.
My friend spot a big, skinhead fellow. “That is Charlie. You have to meet him. He was our topscorer in our record season, when we got 100 points. That is Charlie’s shirt hanging up there”, he says and points to one of the framed shirts. Charlie is very popular in the pub, and by the time he gets over to us, my friend has learned, much to his amazement, that I am 51 years old. “Charlie, this is Hans from Denmark. And would you believe it? He is older than you!”. “Yeah, and taller. I bet you are either a central defender or goal keeper”.
Charlie Henry also gets a special mention in the Lou Macari autobiography – as “a Paul Scholes prototype”. Praise indeed. But checking his record, I find out that he actually is one year older than me.
This is what football does better than anything else. Bring people together. We start with sharing memories of grounds. Then my friend start talking about great players who have played for (or managed) Swindon. Most of which I know. Establishing a common ground, we also get to talk of other things in passing. He learns that I am curator and have worked with military history, and he is sure I will be allowed to see the local historical artillery collection, although it is not open to the public. I learn that he is builder, who after moving to Blackburn with his wife, now lives on top of the pub. I give him my card, and he promises to write to me, so I can contact him on my next visit. He asks me when the last train to London is. It is just under an hour after the match. “Then there is plenty of time for another drink after the match” he says.
The match is against Preston North End, who are top of the table at the start of play. The match is very tight with chances few and far between. We can hardly hear the couple of hundred Preston fans down the other end. They are in the Arkell STand, not the Stratton End, which apparently isn’t used unless it is a capacity crowd.
Everybody at the Town End is standing. There are a few oohs and aahhs, and “Come on you reds” and “Oh when the reds, go steaming in”, but the atmosphere inside the ground cannot quite match the atmosphere inside the pub. During halftime, I go to buy a pie in the tiny stall which is squeezed under the tiny stand.
As the match seems to be heading for a stalemate, I think of my meeting the next morning in London. And decide that rather than risk missing the last train, I will leave the match five minutes before the end to catch the last train but one just to make absolutely sure I get back to London. Which I regret. Because Swindon score a late winner. And I don’t get an email from new friend – who probably expected me back at the pub after the match.